10 All-Around Bad-Ass Queer Women You (Probably) Have Never Heard Of, Part One
(b. 1983 or 84)
A Suquamish tribal member who brought the fight for marriage equality home
In 2011, then-28-year-old Heather Purser, a member of the Suquamish Tribe on the Kitsap Peninsula, stood in front of Tribal Council and asked them to make history as only the second tribe in the country to legally accept same-sex unions. This was after years of lobbying tribal leaders and elders without, in her estimation, making much progress. To her surprise, though, on that day, every single Tribal Council member voted in favor of her proposal. This was a year before voters in Washington state would recognize marriage equality.
“I wanted to feel accepted by my tribe. I was expecting a fight to be ugly. But I was so shocked. I guess I was expecting the worst out of people. I was expecting the worst out of my people,” said Purser, in an interview with the Associated Press soon after the decision. Suquamish Tribal Chairman Leonard Forsman would credit Purser’s passion and perseverance with the Council’s unanimous decision.
Today, Purser, who came out to her family at 16, works as a diver for her tribe and has continued her advocacy work, including around the 2019 officer-involved shooting death of Stonechild Chiefstick, a Suquamish tribal member.
In 2012, Purser’s story was used as inspiration by Washington Governor Christine Gregoire when introducing marriage equality legislation, which voters approved later that year.
(Photo credit: AP)
A butch blues goddess
During the Harlem Resistance of the 1920s and 30s, blues singer Gladys Bentley broke all the rules. Throwing off the conventions of gender and sexuality, Bentley was openly lesbian and, from the earliest age, preferred masculine fashion.
While on stage, she was often backed up by drag queens, improvised raunchy lyrics to popular songs of the day, and openly flirted with female audience members, all while performing in her signature look: a tuxedo, complete with top hat. Bentley’s deep, soulful voice and undeniable presence were fixtures at New York gay clubs and speakeasies, including at well-known venues like the Apollo Theatre and The Cotton Club.
In 1931, at the height of her career, she publicly married a woman in a civil ceremony in New Jersey.
After Prohibition, Bentley moved to the west coast to expand her career, but never enjoyed the kind of success she had in New York.
In 1960, at the age of 52, Bentley died suddenly of pneumonia. While she isn’t a household name, Bentley’s story has become an inspiration to many in the LGBTQ+ and Black communities. In 2019, The New York Times included Bentley in a series called “Overlooked No More”, which sought to make right historical reporting bias that disproportionally affected women and minorities.
The woman who helped educate San Francisco on transgender issues
In 1992, Chung, who emigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. as a teenager, decided to begin her transition. What followed were several difficult years indicative of the discrimination and unique issues faced by the transgender community. Lacking employment options, she turned to sex work. Drugs helped soothe her personal and emotional pain. During this time, she was diagnosed as HIV positive.
When Chung completed her transition in 1998, she decided to use her experiences to help others, dedicating herself as a leader for change in LGBTQ+ healthcare. Her accomplishments are many: in addition to managing several HIV/AIDS projects, she is the first Asian and transgender woman elected to head the Board of Directors for San Francisco Pride and is one of the original founders of the Trans March—an annual event held during Pride celebrations that brings awareness to human right issues related to the transgender community.
In 2013, Chung was appointed to San Francisco’s Health Commission, where she was able to launch a training program for the city’s Department of Health staff members to learn about issues impacting the transgender community. She also made headlines for instituting regulations requiring the city to pay for gender reassignment surgery for uninsured transgender patients.
In 2017, her story was featured as a part of the ABC miniseries, "When We Rise", which detailed the political and personal struggles of LGBTQ+ rights advocates. Chung currently serves as the Director of Evaluation and Strategic Initiative for the Transgender Law Center.
Professional glass ceiling smasher
Barbara Jordan’s life was all about firsts: She was the first Black person to be elected to the Texas Senate post-Reconstruction, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, and the first Black person and woman to deliver a keynote address at a Democratic National Convention (1976).
In her time as a politician on the state and federal levels, she sponsored or co-sponsored around 400 bills, including upholding or improving legislation related to the minimum wage and voter registration.
After leaving office in 1979, Jordan, an attorney, taught ethics at the University of Texas at Austin, but continued public service throughout her life, chairing the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.
Jordan died in 1996 at the age of 59. She left behind her partner of more than 20 years, Nancy Earl. While there was much speculation over the years about her sexuality and the nature of her relationship with Earl, Jordan never addressed the rumors.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton awarded Jordan the Medal of Freedom. After her death, President Clinton admitted that he had wanted to nominate Jordan for the U.S. Supreme Court.
The bisexual cover girl who dealt in secrets
The earliest known cover model for Vogue magazine (1933), Toto Koopman was born in 1908 on the Indonesian island of Java.
Her modeling career began in Paris for Coco Chanel, as well as some of the other top designers of the day. She was a regular face in the pages of Vogue Paris.
After the start of World War II, Koopman went to live in Italy, where she began a relationship with a man who was central to the anti-Mussolini resistance. Using her contacts, language skills, and smoldering good looks, Koopman was a spy for the Italian Resistance, eventually being captured and held prisoner at the Ravensbrück concentration camp for six months before being released into the care of the Swedish Red Cross.
After the war, Koopman met Erica Brausen, a German-born art dealer. They began a romantic and professional relationship, opening London’s Hanover Gallery, which became one of the most influential modern art galleries of its time. Koopman would go on to study archeology at the University of London and take part in several expeditions.
Koopman and Brausen would remain together for the rest of their lives, dying just 18 months apart.
(Photo credit: Sasha/Getty Images)